Chef Seamus Mullen Remembers a Spanish Food Legend
America's legendary Spanish food authority Penelope Casas died last week, having just completed her final tome: 1,000 Spanish Recipes (2014). A prolific writer whose recipes appeared in Food & Wine, Casas's most famous and influential works include The Foods and Wines of Spain (1982) and Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain (1985). Here, Spain-obsessed chef Seamus Mullen of New York's Tertulia honors her legacy.
Penelope Casas and I shared a mutual love for the foods of Spain that ran deeper than just olive oil, Jamon Iberico and paella. Just like Penelope Casas, I first learned about Spain in 9th grade. I was a below-average student in most subjects, however I had an unusual disposition for the Spanish language thanks to an encouraging teacher. Just like Penelope Casas, I went to Spain on an exchange program, both in high school and then again in college. And just like her I also fell for the cuisine.
After returning from Spain in the spring of 1992, I decided to cook a proper Spanish feast for classmates at my teacher's house so I asked him for help. The assistance I received came in the form of a well-worn copy of The Foods and Wines of Spain, Casas's seminal cookbook published in 1982. At the time I didn't pay the book much mind beyond that I had very much enjoyed both the "food" in Spain and (even more so) the "wine" and it seemed to be exactly what I needed for my project.
I don't remember exactly what I made, though I do recall my first attempt to perform la vuelta de la tortilla, the infamous flipping of the Spanish tortilla, which ended with, how shall I say, egg on my face. I'd like to say that I cooked my way through her book, learning the regional dishes of traditional Spanish cookery, experimenting and exploring. But in all honesty, as an 18-year-old high school student, I think I surveyed the book, choosing only the dishes that included wine for cooking so that I could sneak a little pull. Thinking back on that Friday evening in my teacher's kitchen, I wonder if that was the last time I actually followed a recipe word for word? I think it might have been.
I went on to college, both here in the states and in Spain and I cooked in restaurants, both grand and diminutive and just like Casas I returned to New York with a distinct love for the foods of Spain. While I have never yet returned to cooking from cookbooks (I'll look at the ingredients and improvise), her books, all of them, occupy a large chunk of my bookshelf, smack in the middle of the Iberian section. She was one of the first Americans to champion the cooking of Spain and fight tirelessly to keep it from being muddled up and confused with the cuisines of Latin America and for that, I owe her a debt of gratitude. I was lucky enough to meet Casas and even cook for her, and while I never told her that it was her cookbook that, somewhat indirectly, helped launch my career, I'm sure she could see her books in my food. Casas did more, perhaps, than any single other person to bring the foods of Spain to our shores and her love for, and knowledge of, the foods of Spain will live on in our kitchens. She will be dearly missed.